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Cold War Files: All Units: People: Oliver P. Smith

Oliver P. Smith
Oliver P. Smith
b. October 26, 1893 - d. December 25, 1977
Chief of Staff, Marine Corps, 1948-1950

Born in Menard, Texas, October 26, 1893, and raised in California, Oliver Prince Smith graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1916. Shortly after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. The next year, while stationed on Guam, he transferred to the regular Marine Corps. Between the world wars, Smith held a variety of troop and staff assignments, was attached for four years to the Garde d’Haiti (a combined Army and police force in Haiti), completed the field officers’ course at the Army Infantry School, took the full two-year course at the École Supérieure in Paris, and taught amphibious operations at the Marine Corps schools at Quantico, Virginia. Tall and slim, soft-spoken, unfailingly courteous, and nicknamed “the professor,” Smith gained a reputation as an intellectual during these years and was recognized as an expert on amphibious warfare.

After America’s entry into World War II, Smith served for almost two years as executive officer of the division of plans and policies at Marine Corps headquarters. In March 1944, he assumed command of the 5th Marine Regiment and took part in operations on New Britain in the South Pacific. Promoted to the rank of brigadier general soon afterward, Smith was named assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division; and in September 1944, he participated in the Peleliu Campaign, commanding the operations on the beach during the first day of the landing. Later that year, Smith was appointed Marine Corps deputy chief of staff to U.S. Army Lieutenant General Simon B. Bucker, commander of the American Tenth Army, a post Smith held throughout the Okinawa Campaign. Following the war, Smith commanded the schools at Quantico, was assistant commander of the Marine Corps and chief of staff, and was a member of Marine Corps boards that examined the influence of atomic weapons on the future of amphibious warfare and the steps the Marines should take to ensure their leadership in amphibious warfare.

When President Harry S. Truman committed American forces to the defense of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the summer of 1950, Smith, now commanding the 1st Marine Division with the rank of major general, was given the job of carrying out an amphibious landing deep behind the North Korean lines at Inchon, South Korea. The operation entailed a complicated assault in a narrow harbor with extremely high tides, and Smith initially doubted its feasibility. Nevertheless, after working out the details with naval commanders, he successfully landed his division at Inchon on September 15, 1950, catching the North Koreans completely by surprise. From Inchon the Marines pushed inland to Seoul, the capital of South Korea; and after heavy fighting, secured the city by the end of the month. These successes were marred, however, by Smith’s strained relations with his immediate superior, U.S. Army Major General Edward M. Almond, commander of the X Corps. A forceful, energetic individual, Almond treated Smith in a rude, high-handed manner and complained that Smith, a cautious commander who favored careful tactical maneuvers, was too sluggish in advancing on Seoul. Smith, meanwhile, believed that Almond was reckless and too concerned with personal and headline-grabbing triumphs.

In October 1950, Smith’s division landed on the east coast of North Korea and headed north toward the Changjin (Chosin) Reservoir with the ultimate goal of driving to the Yalu River to complete the United Nations (U.N.) conquest of North Korea. Again Smith and Almond were at odds. Pursuant to the instructions of U.N. commander General Douglas MacArthur, Almond advocated a rapid advance to the Yalu, while Smith thought this movement would lead to disaster. In his opinion it would leave his men widely dispersed far inland in the mountains in the dead of winter, without adequate flank protection, and dependent upon a single, winding, narrow road for supplies. Having no confidence in his mission, Smith moved slowly north from Hungnam, a port city along the coast, through Koto-ri to Hagaru-ri and Yudam-ni in the vicinity of the Changjin (Chosin) Reservoir, insisting that at every stage reserves of ammunition and supplies be stockpiled, that the road from Hungnam be improved, and that an airstrip be built near the reservoir to ferry in supplies and take out casualties. These precautions may well have saved his command in the weeks of retreat to follow.

On November 27, 1950, the Chinese Communists launched a massive counterattack against the X Corps and cut the road stretching 80 miles back to Hungnam in several places, trapping the Marines. After conferring with Almond, Smith decided to withdraw his division to Hungnam. Almond told Smith to leave his heavy equipment and artillery. But Smith, never doubting the ability of the Marines to fight their way out of the Chinese entrapment, was determined to conduct “an orderly and honorable withdrawal” and bring out his equipment, wounded, and even as many of his dead as possible. Regrouping his forward units and attached Army units at Hagaru-ri, he withdrew from the Changjin area, all the time making sure that he controlled the hills overlooking the road. Opposed by no less than eight Chinese divisions, fighting through numerous enemy roadblocks as they made their way south, and forced to endure subzero temperatures, the Marines suffered thousands of battle casualties and cases of frostbite. Yet Smith’s dogged leadership and crucial air support enabled them to maintain their tactical integrity and inflict 25,000 casualties on the Chinese. Asked by a journalist December 6, if the Marines were retreating, Smith, in a widely circulated quotation that earned him great acclaim at home, defiantly replied: “We are not retreating, we are just advancing in a different direction.” By December 11, after 13 harrowing days, Smith’s force finally arrived at Hungnam, where his division was evacuated by sea. In a brilliant feat of military management, Smith had saved his division and given American morale a desperately needed boost at a critical time in the Korean War.

Following a period of recuperation, Smith’s 1st Marine Division was attached to the IX Corps and took part in the American Eighth Army's counteroffensive in South Korea in February 1951. When the corps commander suddenly died, Smith temporarily commanded the corps until an Army general arrived to take his place, one of the few times that a Marine commanded a combined Army/Marine Corps division or corps. On April 24, 1951, Smith relinquished command of the 1st Marine Division and returned to the United States to command Camp Pendleton, California. In 1953, he was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic. Two years later he retired with the rank of general. Smith died in Los Altos, California, December 25, 1977.

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